England: The Blame Game, Part One

As reported this morning, John Barnes has spoken of the “blame game” that inevitably follows an England exit from a major tournament. Never one to disappoint, Nathan’s World Cup takes a look at the various possible explanations for England’s dismal showing in South Africa.

The Ball

The theory: Adidas’s Jabulani ball, which came in for such criticism from keepers, players and coaches alike early in the World Cup.

It would be lovely to blame England’s litany of over- and under-hit passes, abysmal first touches and shanked shots on the ball but this excuse holds no water.

Germany were first to disprove it with their 4-0 hammering of Australia. It turns out the Jabulani had been made available to national associations at the turn of the year, with the German Bundesliga using it for six months before the World Cup. England had the same opportunity but the Premier League has an exclusive deal with Nike, so the Adidas ball could not be used.

Cristiano Ronaldo struck the bar with his first shot against Ivory Coast: Japan scored two excellent free kicks against Denmark. Spain pinged the ball about with their usual ease. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Germany and Ghana have all played fluid pass-and-move football with few problems.

Most of all, England’s players may not have been using it in the Premier League but they surely had plenty of time with it in training. It might be a different ball, but it’s still a ball, and these are footballers. Go to Brazil, watch some kids kick some rolled up newspaper around a field, and tell them your ball is too round.

Verdict: Forget it.

The Climate

The theory: altitudes and climates in the Southern Hemisphere are too much for Our Brave Lions and the overall poor showing of Western European teams suggests climatic differences are to blame.

Nope. South Africa is in the middle of winter and as such conditions are more, not less suitable for European teams than the South Americans. Altitude may be a factor, as Graham Souness pointed out on Irish broadcaster RTE, but again, that affects everyone.

The Western European argument is disproven immediately by Germany and Spain. France’s myriad problems went far beyond the climate and Marcello Lippi assembled an Italian squad fit for the glue factory with very little flair.

Verdict: No.

The Manager

The theory: Fabio Capello failed to inspire his players to improve their performances.

There is some truth to this but we will likely not find out until all involved have retired and released updated autobiographies. It is certainly true that Capello stuck rigidly to 4-4-2 despite most of his first eleven playing variations of 4-3-3 at club level.

It is also true that he failed to change the course of games with substitutions; most of his changes were like-for-like, even when chasing the game against Germany. With the benefit of hindsight his squad was light on impact substitutions and was poorly balanced.

His oft-expressed intention to select England players based on form and fitness rather than reputation was exposed as fallacy when he tempted Jamie Carragher out of international retirement despite the ageing Liverpool centre back having such a poor season at club level, and his selection of the notoriously injury-prone Ledley King, who broke down with groin trouble after just 45 minutes of England’s first match against USA.

He also ignored Darren Bent, after Wayne Rooney the highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League last season, and took Shaun Wright Phillips over Adam Johnson despite the latter consigning the former to the bench since signing for Manchester City.

It has also been suggested that the players were bored at their camp at Royal Bafokeng where distractions were minimal and playing staff were kept securely in their rooms for security reasons. This might hold some water were it not for those same players blaming their World Cup 2006 exit on the media circus surrounding them and their wives and girlfriends. They surely cannot have it both ways.

Capello is one of the most successful club managers in history but tournaments are different beasts to club seasons. He has the players in his care for 24 hours a day rather than just two hours of training. It is possible, therefore, that he is not cut out for this different style of management: witness Luis Felipe Scolari, whose relaxed attitude to training saw him sacked by Chelsea after just seven months in the job. Being good at one does not necessarily mean being good at the other.

Chelsea were unable to give Scolari time, fearing they would end the season not only potless but failing to qualify for the Champions League, but Capello has two years before the next tournament and is surely far too intelligent not to have learned from his experience in South Africa.

The FA are extremely unlikely to sack him: they cannot really afford the severance on his £6m a year contract, and there are no better alternatives in any case.

Verdict: Clearly made mistakes but he is, quite simply, too good to let go, and at least deserves another tournament with a different crop of players.

Continue to Part 2

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